A century of learning the business of life

​In 2018, as Home Economics and Human Ecology mark 100 years, two grads reflect on their passion for home, family and giving back to their communities

Sarah Pratt - 19 December 2018

For women like the ones in this nutrition lab in 1923, home economics was a gateway to university and careers.

The early 20th century was a time of burgeoning opportunity for women. In 1918, the same year most Canadian women were granted voting rights, the University of Alberta established the Department of Household Economics.

For women who went through the program, it became their entry into higher education and professional opportunities.

For Catherine Ellis, '63 BSc(HomeEc), it was the science of nutrition that led to university.

Catherine Ellis

"I was always fascinated by how food became us," says Ellis. "How, if you eat various things, they turn into skin and bone and such."

After majoring in food and nutrition and completing her dietetic internship, Ellis worked as a district home economist and a public health nutritionist before becoming a grain farmer in Olds, Alta., with her husband, Graham.

In the 30-odd years since, Ellis has seen many changes in farming: no-till systems, GPS, cellphones. When she thought about how to help prepare tomorrow's farmers, she decided to arrange a gift of life insurance to the U of A.

"The future is with education, especially with the technological changes happening in the field," she says.

Her future gift to the Department of Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science will be used wherever the department sees the greatest need.

"I feel like they can make that decision for me," she says.

It is the instructors that Ellis recalls most fondly, especially professor emeritus Ruth Renner, '48 Bsc(Ag), '50 MSc.

"My mother babysat her," recalls Ellis. "I really admired her, she was a wonderful instructor … they were all very good instructors and I received an excellent education."

Dorothy Gardner

Dorothy Gardner, '61 BSc(HomeEc), also felt the U of A played an important role in shaping her life, and she chose to help students continue their education.

The oldest of four children raised on a farm north of Lloydminster, Sask., Gardner recalls the day her father brought home a Singer Featherweight sewing machine - it didn't take long for Gardner to figure out how to use it.

Her years as a 4H member and high school home economics classes led Gardner down a natural path into the U of A's Household Economics program.

And the lessons she learned there have lasted a lifetime - both professionally and personally. She taught home economics for more than 30 years, is an acrylic and watercolour artist, a baker whose pastries and pies are beloved, and a seamstress of intricately embellished garments.

While reviewing her will a few years ago, Gardner decided she wanted to give back to the place that gave her so much.

As a university student, she was turned down for scholarships because she didn't qualify on financial grounds, so she decided to create the Dorothy (Cowan) Gardner Bursary in Human Ecology to help students struggling with costs.

"I hope this bursary means students can have an education they might not otherwise get," says Gardner, who hopes to reconnect with her alma mater during the September 2018 Alumni Weekend.

"Home economics and the University of Alberta gave me a great background for my career as a home economics teacher."

Both Gardner and Ellis say their education played an important role in shaping their lives, and their decision to give back to the university will help ensure other students can continue their own journeys.